The inkstained cut tips of reed pens
Varying diameters

A reed pen (Greek: κάλαμοι kalamoi; singular κάλαμος kalamos) is a writing implement made by cutting and shaping a single reed straw or length of bamboo.

History and manufacture

Egyptian reed pens inside ivory and wooden palettes, the Louvre[1]
Three views of a narrow tip

Reed pens with regular features such as a split nib have been found in Ancient Egyptian sites dating from the 4th century BC. Reed pens were used for writing on papyrus, and were the most common writing implement in antiquity. In Mesopotamia and Sumer, reed pens were used by pressing the tips into clay tablets to create written records, using cuneiform.[2]

To make a reed pen, scribes would take an undamaged piece of reed about 20 cm long, and leave the end that would be cut into a point in water for some time. This ensured that the pen would not splinter when crafted. They made a series of cuts that would shape the nib of the pen until it was flat enough, and pointed. The pointed end was then cut off, not too far from the point, to form a squared end suitable for writing. At the end they would start the split, which would act as a primitive ink barrel, from the tip of the nib and lengthen it until it was of the proper length. They made care not to lengthen it extensively, because the pen was at risk of snapping in half. Being skilled at making reed pens was important for early scribes due to low durability of the pen.[3]

Reed pens are stiffer than quill pens cut from feathers and do not retain a sharp point for as long. This led to them being replaced by quills.[4] Nevertheless, a reed pen can make bold strokes, and it remains an important tool in calligraphy.[5]

Reed pen in art

A drawing with reed pen, brown ink over graphite of a farmhouse and ploughman in Arles, France.
Vincent Van Gogh, Ploughman in the Fields near Arles, 1888, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Although quill pens had largely replaced reed pens by medieval times, from time to time the powerful strokes produced by the reed pen have been preferred by modern artists.[6] Until the end of the 19th century, most art was commissioned by wealthy patrons or by institutions such as the church. As such, more traditional depictions of accepted themes were both the most popular and widely accepted. During the 19th century, social and cultural changes were reflected in literature and art. With this, artists began to explore different ways to express their vision and create their own personal style. [citation needed] Artist Vincent van Gogh made use of the strong stroke and accent of the reed pen, combining it with brown ink and graphite, to create a drawing of a different style.[7]

See also


  1. ^ "Palette de scribe". Antiquités égyptiennes du Louvre (in French). Archived from the original on 2016-08-03. Retrieved 2014-08-07.
  2. ^ "Cuneiform Writing Techniques [CDLI Wiki]". Archived from the original on 2019-09-05. Retrieved 2019-09-05.
  3. ^ History of Reed Pen Archived 2018-09-21 at the Wayback Machine from
  4. ^ Glossary definition Archived 2007-09-26 at the Wayback Machine from
  5. ^ Gottfried Pott – A Look into the World of Calligraphy Archived 2020-04-13 at the Wayback Machine from
  6. ^ "Drawing Materials". Archived from the original on 2020-01-30. Retrieved 2020-01-30.
  7. ^ "Drawing - Coloured crayons". Encyclopedia Britannica. Archived from the original on 2020-08-13. Retrieved 2019-11-16.